Buddhism has had a profound impact on the lives of the Japanese. This is due to its emphasis on a way of life rather than a doctrine or temples. It is something that anyone can experience and benefit from, regardless of their ideology, personality or status. Buddhism is not something that is acquired through a mystical or provisional experience. Rather, it is a natural experience evident in everyday life and can be enjoyed by all.

Mahayana Buddhism is a vast and diverse religious tradition that encompasses a wide range of philosophical schools, meditative practices, and metaphysical beliefs. In Japan, Buddhism has coexisted with Shintoism for over 1,400 years. While Buddhism was initially associated with the upper classes, a fusion of Shinto and Buddhist beliefs became popular among ordinary Japanese people.

Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan.

When Buddhism first arrived in Japan, the term Shinto was used to distinguish the indigenous beliefs of the Japanese people. Fortunately, the Japanese were introduced to the Mahayana form of Buddhism, which is highly tolerant and open to new ideas and other religions.

To accommodate Shintoism, Japanese Buddhism made some slight modifications. Shinto was recognized as a kind of local manifestation of ultimate truth, and kami (spirits or gods) was incorporated as a common form of Buddhist deities. Buddha was also recognized as a kami, and kami were believed to be subject to the same cycles of death and rebirth as Buddhists.

Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples were often built in close proximity to each other to avoid any conflicts between the two religions. Kami was also believed to listen to Buddhist sutras and were considered embodiments of Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who have postponed their own salvation to help others achieve enlightenment). Through these concepts, Japanese Buddhism introduced new ideas to Shintoism and Confucianism and became widely accepted among the Japanese people. Today, Buddhism and Shintoism continue to coexist in Japan, forming a unique and fascinating religious landscape.

Japan is home to approximately 119 million followers of Shintoism, with anyone who performs any form of Shinto ritual counted among its followers. Many Japanese people who participate in everyday Shinto and Confucian rituals and beliefs also practice Buddhism. Interestingly, these three religions do not require strict adherence to be considered a practitioner or advocate, and it is often difficult to pin down exact terms for self-identification of faith in Japan.

The blending of Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan has led to a unique division of roles for each religion. Shinto principles are primarily followed for “life” occasions such as birth and marriage, while Buddhist traditions and principles are followed for “death” or “afterlife” events such as funerals. For example, when a child is born, Japanese people often celebrate the event at a Shinto shrine, while funeral arrangements for a deceased loved one are typically handled according to Buddhist principles.
Japanese people visit Shinto shrines for New Year celebrations, often with a specific need or aspiration in mind. On the other hand, Buddhist temples are typically visited for questions about the afterlife and to gain a deeper understanding of the spiritual realm. While these two religious practices have distinct areas of focus, most Japanese people have come to accept that they are complementary and necessary for dealing with the many challenges of daily life.

The coexistence of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan has led to a unique blending of traditions and beliefs. Many Japanese people incorporate elements of both practices into their daily routines, recognizing that each offers a different perspective on life and spirituality. This dynamic relationship between Shintoism and Buddhism is a testament to the country’s rich cultural heritage and the adaptability of its people in the face of changing circumstances.

The acceptance of both Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan reflects a deep-seated respect for spiritual diversity and a willingness to embrace different ways of understanding the world around us. Whether seeking guidance for everyday issues or contemplating the mysteries of the afterlife, Japanese people have a wealth of traditions and beliefs to draw upon, creating a rich and vibrant religious landscape that continues to evolve with each passing year.